Director of the Banacos Center, Sarah Lazare, on Accessibility and Awareness

Sep 27, 2023
Photo of Sarah Lazare

Sarah Lazare, Director of the Banacos Academic Center is passionate about learning. Namely, helping students recognize the possibilities and opportunities available to them while the way to graduation. Whether it’s through receiving reasonable accommodations, learning how to learn, one-on-one tutoring, or the utilization of resources, Lazare wants people to know that they aren’t alone.

For Lazare, her journey started during her undergraduate studies at Smith College. After struggling with her classes and even being advised to leave, Lazare reflected on why her grades were so low. “No one had ever taught me how to learn,” she said. “My father was told I was the smartest black student in my high school. I wasn’t being given the opportunities other students were. I was good enough… but not good enough, because when I went to college, I didn’t know how to study.” 

After being put on academic probation, Lazare enrolled in study-skill courses, which taught her techniques and methodologies on how best to learn and focus on her work. “From that point on, I had a better idea of what to do.”

These experiences led to Lazare to becoming passionate about helping others in the same way, becoming the Coordinator of Tutorial Services at Smith College after she graduated. However, Lazare then went to law school, where she dreamed of helping students with similar struggles find success in their academic studies, only to realize she could best do this by working with the students first-hand. At Wesleyan University, she oversaw their disability services, along with supervising peer advisors who assisted in helping any students with tasks such as course registration, time management, and academic strategies.

After discovering and landing a position at the Banacos Academic Center at Westfield State University, Lazare would work to heighten awareness for people with disabilities in order to bring more attention to their needs. She would also help implement new protocols at the University while laws struggled to catch up with those with challenges surrounding accessibility and learning. 

Things began to shift in 2008, when the Web Consortium Disability Guidelines 2.0 (WCAG) were put into place. These guidelines, published by the World Wide Web Consortium improved its predecessor, bringing systemic awareness and solutions to websites which had yet to make their information usable for those who could not readily access it. By 2013, many had adapted their sites in accordance to these guidelines. By 2019, accessibility was a part of web designers' vernacular, Lazare said, with people citing WCAG on a regular basis. 

The Banacos Academic Center houses both the Learning Disabilities Program and Disability Services. All services are free, and students are encouraged to stop by Banacos Academic Center or make an appointment to discuss their situations at anytime throughout the year. As with many of the departments and programs on campus, Banacos Center works with additional programs such as the Course Achievement, Retention, and Engagement (CARE) Center to help find holistic, academic strategies which work for the students they serve. 

“We like to think of ourselves as supporting all students, because students can come to our offices at any point in time and receive support if they have a temporary disability, or if they’re having issues with learning in general. We welcome that. Our space is open for any student to study as well,” Lazare said. “Last year, we had 1,081 students who identified with having a disability enroll at the University.

Disability Services welcomes students at any point of their academic career, (whether they're simply auditing a class or enrolling in a graduate program) to discuss their needs and walk them through the reasonable accommodation process. Those at the Banacos Center rely on Zoom to work with online, commuter, and graduate population for convenience. In collaboration with the University's other support programs, students are often referred to services such as those provided by Academic Advising and Transfer Transitions, as well as the Course Achievement, Retention, and Engagement Center (CARE), Reading and Writing Center, and TRIO Student Support Services

Lazare emphasized the successes of the Learning Disabilities Program (LDP) offered by the Banacos Academic Center. The program is an undergraduate admissions-based service and is offered to students who identify with disabilities. Students in this particular program are part the 1,081 who are enrolled in the University, and are provided with program advisors who work closely with individuals to help address course registration, accessing reasonable accommodations, and academic support.

"We have a lot of people who are successful in the LDP," Lazare said. "A lot of our students are on the Dean’s list. I think they do well because they have the support. We’re hearing their story and talking with them, and we’re also hearing what’s going on in the University and guide them towards the opportunities they can take.”

Some of the services the Center offers are its range of academic tools and instruments which help supplement students’ needs, often providing assistance with reading, writing, organizing, and remembering. Donations made to Banacos have helped fund the purchasing of smart pens, which records audio in addition to remembering what a student writes so, if distracted during a lecture, students can go back, re-listen to the lecture, and complete their notes while studying. 

Similarly, to smart pens, software such as Kurzweil, a screen-reading program and skill-building tool, are versatile for all types of learning. “Kurzweil is great for students who are writing a paper because it can be read back to them,” Lazare said. “You can find that feature on Microsoft Word, too. Kurzweil will take images of characters and then convert it into the character, so if there’s a scan of an old book, then it’ll convert it for the student.”

However, not every tool needs to be elaborate, Lazare said. She also highlighted tools for accessibility which people engage with on a regular basis. Features such as screen reading, voice recognition, and voice-to-text messaging are widely used by people who may not even realize they’re utilizing assistive techology. 

“It’s a very normal thing to have a limiting condition. So many students already use Google voice-typing. Everybody has voice recognition in their phone too, and they use the speak-to-text function for their text messages and emails… or they’ll use the swype-feature. If my hands tremor, I’ll just swipe the words instead of typing everything out. There’s so many different tools used in everyday life, including Grammarly and Calendly, which a lot of the staff and faculty use.”

Even objects such as fidget spinners, cubes, and similar toys are categorized as accessible technology. “You may not think of it as accessible technology, but it is,” Lazare said before happily revealing the sensory ring she’d been twirling with her fingers. “It’s amazing how helpful it is for people, parents, students, staff, faculty… to have something to play with.” 

Although pathways for accessibility remain imperfect, Lazare still believes in the resiliency and adaptability students exhibit when given the proper resources. For her, success begins with advocating for oneself. 

“A lot of students don’t ask [for help] because they’re either not going to get the response they need, or they don’t have the resources to know how. Some are taught to never ask… but this is now your role. Read your email. Obey your syllabus. This is for everybody. They’re where your guide is!”

For those looking to make their digital communication more accessible, visit this guide.